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Police officers complain of brutality by colleagues after prohibited demo

Riot police arrest protesters at an unauthorized protest demonstration against the curfew organized by the association 'Vecht voor je recht', in front of the Brussels Central Station, in the city centre of Brussels, Sunday 31 January 2021. (BELGA PHOTO NICOLAS MAETERLINCK)
09:36 23/02/2021

A dozen police officers from the Brussels-Capital Ixelles zone have reported misconduct by colleagues in relation to the arrests made following a prohibited demonstration in January. Their testimonies led to a letter from police union ACOD being sent to Brussels mayor Philippe Close.

According to the officers, minors were "brutally beaten" in the cells, while innocent by-standers caught up in the demonstration and other young people were held for hours without charge after being detained in the city centre.

In the letter to Brussels mayor Philippe Close, the president of ACOD-Brussels wrote that several mistakes were made in the demonstration against class justice last month, during which 245 people were arrested, including 91 minors. The letter dates from 15 February and deals with the facts of three weeks before that.

On Sunday 24 January, about 100 people gathered at the Monts des Arts to protest against what they called "class justice". That demonstration had been denied a permit to take place, so after 45 minutes, the police asked everyone to leave the area and the zone around Central Station. Those who did not were arrested and taken to the police barracks at Etterbeek.

According to widely reported testimonies, some of the detainees had nothing to do with the demonstration, but only happened to be passing by. There were also testimonies from detainees who claim to have been beaten in the cells. At least 11 detainees complained to the Committee P, the police oversight body, and the prosecutor's office is investigating their claims.

Now it appears that some police officers have also reported misconduct. "Some of our members witnessed behaviour that they felt was absolutely not acceptable," said a spokesperson for the ACOD. "It's about bad behaviour by multiple officers. We're not going to tell you if they're local or federal agents. We got a dozen testimonials from members who saw it happen themselves. Our letter serves to insist that all procedures must be clear and followed without deviation."

The letter refers to "unnecessary police brutality" against minors and various procedural errors. For example, not all detainees were given a tape around the wrist stating the place of their arrest. There were also too few female officers on duty at the demonstration to search the female detainees. And despite the corona measures, many people were locked up together in the jail together or were not released until after the capital’s 22.00 curfew.

Close confirmed he had received the letter but would not comment further. "The investigation is ongoing, and we don't want to complicate that," a spokeswoman for his cabinet said. Close will meet with the various police unions and the police chief on Thursday to discuss the situation.

The ACOD should not count on much assistance from the other trade unions for the time being. The ACOD represents about 500 employees of the local police zone, a quarter of the total number of officers. The ACV, VSOA and NSPV police unions refused to comment until the investigation is complete.

"If the facts were so serious, I would not write a letter to the mayor, but file a complaint with the court," said Rudy Harnie of the ACV.

"I can't shake the feeling that there's a political agenda behind this," said VSOA Vice President Vincent Houssin. "Why do you suddenly come up with testimonials three weeks later? You have to report them immediately."

According to the ACOD, these reports were indeed made in the immediate aftermath of the demonstration and the police intervention. "It took a while for our members to get to talk to our delegates,” the spokesperson explained. “They have already reported these issues internally, but we don't want them to feel alone. We hope there will be a thorough reflection on Thursday. We also ask that cameras be installed in the barracks to avoid such misconduct in the future."

The federal police, who own the barracks in Etterbeek, confirmed that there are currently no cameras in the building. "A file has been opened to install them," a spokeswoman for the federal police said. The federal police have yet to start their own internal investigation into the January 24 arrests. "We have not yet received a report from the local police area that encourages us to do so," the spokesperson added.

The Brussels-Capital-Ixelles police zone preferred not to comment on the situation.

Written by Nick Amies